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Book Reviews Historical Fiction

Book Review: Fern Riddell’s ‘Death in Ten Minutes’

A non-fiction must-read for any angry feminist like myself.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Death in Ten Minutes: The forgotten life of radical suffragette Kitty Marion:  Amazon.co.uk: Riddell, Fern: 9781473666184: Books
Think of history as dry and dusty? Think again (along with the best cover design I have seen from any history book over the last few years)

Higlights

I have a special place in my heart for Fern Riddell. She’s part of a new wave of young, female historians who have brains and sass by the bucketload. Listening to her interview with Dan Snow on his History Hit podcast (an absolute favourite of mine) opened my eyes to Kitty Marion. The podcast is called The Violence of the Suffragettes and it’s available on Spotify if you’re interestered.

Without Riddell’s memorable monologuing in the subject, I never would have come across the Kitty Marion, and never would have settled on her for my historical fiction project at MA. Riddell opened my eyes to a more violent, racier image of the WSPU Suffragettes and I will be eternally grateful to her for it. This is her seminal work: she is the original ‘Marionist’ historian. She took the initiative of unearthing an unknown suffragette’s unpublished biography, blowing the dust off it, and blowing our preconceptions about the militant Suffrage movement out of the water.

Marion’s autobiography has since been published (and I am extremely relieved it’s available online via the UEA library). I’ve since read it cover to cover and had the same feeling as Riddell- that feeling of unearthing something absolutely extraordinary. Except I wasn’t the first to do it. Riddell’s Death in Ten Minutes is, at its heart, a biography of this formidable woman, but it is also so much more than that. Riddell was originally a sex historian, so she brings in a new take and analyses the available evidence in a different way to many Suffrage historians and second-wave feminists, who largely swept the Birth Control movement under the proverbial rug. After moving to the USA in 1917, Marion became an avid member of the American Birth Control Review (which later became Planned Parenthood). Although she had no known relationships herself, she supported women’s right to choose when and how they had sex and whether they had children.

The combined history of the Suffrage and the Birth Control movements, and indeed the historiography of the two, are extremely complex and intertwined. Many contemporary Suffragettes, subsequent Suffrage historians and second-wave feminists have taken a dim view of women’s sexual freedom, and therefore attempted to write Birth Control advocates (such as Kitty Marion) out of the history of the fight for the Vote. The Pankhursts had a narrow view of ‘correct’ and ‘upright’ womanhood. If a woman was unmarried, she was not supposed to be having sex. If a woman had sex or gave birth out of wedlock, or sold sex, she wasn’t seen as a ‘worthy’ woman with moral fibre. The white on the Suffragette banner stood for purity. Contemporary accounts of Suffragettes imprisoned in Holloway often bear a distinct flavour of prudishness or contempt towards the many sex workers also imprisoned there. Emmeline Pankhurst disowned her own daughter, Sylvia Pankhurst, for having a baby out of wedlock. Riddell proposes this tension as one of the reasons Kitty Marion’s name has largely been forgotten, despite being one of the most (in)famous and influential Suffragettes of her day.

Riddell really brings the militant Suffrage movement to life in this book. The Suffragette (note: Sufragette not Suffragist) movement of the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) was not about middle-class ladies making lovely speeches and chaining themselves to railings. They set bombs, they set fire to postboxes, mansions, churches. They blew up railway carriages. They put chemicals in postboxes which gave postmen severe burns. They cut telegraph wires. They destroyed public property. They attacked politicians (with hatchets). They were radicals, they were dangerous women. I cannot stress these points enough. We find these facts distasteful. We want to remember them as peaceful victims. They were not peaceful, and they were not victims. They had agency. They fought in the literal sense of the word. And there, in the middle of it all, was Kitty Marion.

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Book Reviews

Book Review: Graham Swift’s ‘Waterland’

Rating: 5 out of 5.
Image result for waterland book
This book will slighter right into your subconscious

Creepy, eely, dark, sombre, full of folk tales, mystery, revenge and family secrets, an unreliable narrator and a collection of fascinating anecdotes- this is historical fiction like you’ve never read it before.

This book is old. It was published in 1983. So I’m not saying anything new here. It won the Guardian prize for fiction and has become a postmodernist classic, so this review is not going to help it get the recognition it deserves. Having said that, let’s get on with my gushing.

First of all, the writing style is something I’ve never experienced before. It’s most reminiscent to me of Günther Grass, but since he writes in German and I had to read his books as a lowly second year, it left me horribly frustrated yet confused. Swift’s writing is somehow clear as mud, but rings like a bell. It’s obtuse and simple at the same time. The narrator, a disgruntled history teacher, suddenly decides to start telling his pupils stories ‘instead’ of ‘real’ history. But, if you didn’t already know this, history is just stories anyway. There’s loads of asides from this narrator: Swift really maximises the use of brackets and dashes, almost like a blog post, yet it never gets annoying. Sometimes, he skips from one thought to another, or leaves something unsaid yet implied. You just have to get used to this. However, the book flows like the Ouse river, it oozes into your soul. The prose is beautiful, almost archaic. You get the sense of a well-educated history teacher, born in the late 1920s, talking to you. One who’s extremely intelligent yet a tiny bit mad. I read these – almost 500 pages – in three days. I put it down to eat, sleep and watch Netflix in the evening. Sometimes I took the dogs for a walk. And then I got back to reading.

One day in 1943, a body washes up in the river outside the narrator’s house. He’s around sixteen years old, a lockkeeper’s son, and knows he is partly to blame. Why? That’s what takes an entire book to explain.

The setting here is all-important. It’s the Fens. That creepy, forgotten expanse of watery land in East Anglia. The Fens are vast, empty and very, very flat. They’re not even supposed to be there at all. They’re built on reclaimed land dredged from the Wash. The Fens are built on ever-shifting peat and silt. Most Fenlanders are poor, and the area is sparsely populated. Most farm the rich soil. On a clear day, you can see Ely Cathedral from any part of the Fens. The man-made, man-shaped canals and rivers are teeming with eels. That’s how it got its name. Eely Cathedral. The residents are a bit eely themselves. Slippery, cagey and with a propensity for caprice. They’d turn back on themselves and swim against the current rather than stop gossipping.

Apart from all the Fenland stories, many of which read like fairy tales, with themes of comeuppance, revenge, betrayal, incest and murder, there are also many asides about the nature of history itself. The teacher, Tom Crick, is nominally attempting to teach his class about the French Revolution. However, he’s being forced into early retirement, so he decides to throw it out the window and tell whatever he feels like: stories of from his mother, stories of the Fens in the 18th and 19th Centuries, anecdotes about eels, silt, beer, to his own stories- his first love, and his brother. As a reader, you sometimes have to be patient. There’s a bit of navel-gazing about historiography. How can we know history? What gets told? It’s very postmodern, and as a history graduate I was digging it like Fenland silt, but it won’t be to everyone’s tastes.

The novel is nominally set in 1980, as the history teacher spins his yarns, yet it covers a vast period of Fenland history, from the 1700s to the present day. The townsfolk are achingly superstitious. Will-o-the-wisps haunt the rivers, and a wise woman, Martha Clay, squats in her hut outside town performing backstreet abortions with the help of dried herbs swinging from the rafters, seemingly immortal. The history teacher grew up here in this wild, flat land of biting wind and mystery. Some find it hard to believe Graham Swift grew up in South London and barely even visited the Fens in his research for the book. The novel is dripping with atmospheric ooze, the silt which both builds and destroys.